12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas

Rob Nash's solo show is funny, honest, and a welcome relief from saccharine holiday shows

Arts Review

12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas

The Vortex, through Jan. 3

Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

Mildred hasn't had an enjoyable Christmas in 45 years, and the newly divorced Texarkanan is determined to make 1993's December one to remember. For that to happen, however, Mildred must leave her longstanding home (for Houston!), put two loved ones in the ground, be reunited with her gay son, take custody of her grandchildren, appear on multiple talk shows, and visit a gay bar. If that's not 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas, well, it's at least six.

12 Steps is Rob Nash's one-man Christmas show at the Vortex, which is being revived 15 years after its original production. It tells the tale of a family trying to have a happy holiday despite inner strife and adversity. Mildred is the unassuming matriarch, who is about to leave all she's known in Texarkana when she receives a call from her estranged son, Fred. After three years away, during which he's contracted AIDS, Fred's ready for some of his mother's unconditional love. The love might not be flowing as freely between Fred and his brother's family, consisting as it does of conservative parents, angsty children, and a New Age lesbian aunt named Windsong.

No wonder this family's brimming with alcoholics: Everyone from homely 11-year-old Ashley to on-her-own Mildred has some palpable problem. It reminded me of visiting my mother's family last Christmas, a gathering so fraught with ill will and tension that I was shocked only my bordering-on-alcoholic uncle and I were drinking. If you've ever had the desire to down your eggnog 'n' bourbon in one gulp, then you can probably relate to the family feuding 12 Steps presents.

Nash's Christmas narrative has no shortage of drama, with multiple deaths and soap-opera-esque turns in its compact 90 minutes. But 12 Steps does not descend into melodrama. First off, Nash is a very funny guy, and each of his characters plays into the stereotypes he or she was born from: Holistic Windsong needs to listen to "the Goddess" at all times; teenager Matt is a defensive mess of crotch-grabbing and curse words. And despite the humorous digs, 12 Steps treats its characters with enough respect to give each his or her own sweet, redemptive side.

Nash also proves to be quite a versatile and precise actor: Each character is clearly identifiable by vocal inflections, posture, or the way Nash wears his flannel shirt (an early Nineties staple). As a play from '93, the storylines and meaning of 12 Steps hold up quite well, and the specific anachronisms are cute, certainly not distracting. There is a Ross Perot joke, for example, and references to "it" bands R.E.M. and U2.

I have a tendency to avoid holiday-themed theatre due to its saccharine nature, but I was won over by Nash's ability and willingness to show the fault lines between families and our attempts to patch them up in a way that is never cheesy. 12 Steps is sweet, honest, funny, and – for anyone who's struggled to hold his or her tongue at a holiday gathering – a welcome relief.

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12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas, Rob Nash

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